Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade (SACD review)

Also, Capriccio espagnol; Neapolitan Song. Tatiana Porshneva and Alexei Brunt, violin; Carlo Ponti, Russian National Orchestra. PentaTone PTC 5186 378.

When Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) wrote his symphonic suite Scheherazade, Op. 35, in 1888, he based it on stories from the Arabian Nights, saying "All I desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond a doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other and composed on the basis of themes common to all the four movements." The work would go on to become probably the most-popular music the man ever wrote and one of the most widely played and widely loved pieces in the classical repertoire.

As one might expect of so famous a work, competition among stereo recordings is fierce. My own favorites are older, well-established ones: Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA) for excitement; Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic (Philips) for poetry; Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic (EMI) for color; Kiril Kondrashin and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips) for power; and Sir Charles Mackerras and the London Symphony (Telarc) for vividness. With such formidable rivals, Maestro Carlo Ponti's new PentaTone recording with the Russian National Orchestra doesn't quite measure up, unless one simply has to have the music in multichannel sound.

Thanks to Tatiana Porsheneva's violin playing, this Scheherazade does sound properly sensuous, that much is certain--luxuriant, voluptuous, even sensual. It's Ponti's direction that seems a bit foursquare. It doesn't appear as though he wants to take too many chances. Although the performance is smooth and agreeable, it lacks much of the individuality of competing interpretations. This one is more lyrical than most, though, with "The Tale of Prince Kalendar" sounding resplendent and dance-like and "The Young Prince and the Young Princess" coming off even better. Yet that big finale, "The Festival at Bagdad; the Sea; The Shipwreck," despite some big orchestral thumps, seems too casual, never drumming up much fervor or passion.

Likewise, the Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34 (1887) strikes me as being a tad underpowered, at least for my taste. Under Ponti's direction, it contains moments of great beauty, to be sure, but it never quite reveals the bravura or vivacity one expects until the very end, the fifth and final section, where the "Fandango asturiano" packs a solid wallop. But why save it all for the last?

The program ends with Rimsky-Korsakov's rather incongruous Neapolitan Song, Op. 63 (1907), familiar to most of us as Italian composer Luigi Denza's music for "Finiculi, Finicula," written a quarter of a century earlier. Here, Ponti shows the kind of spirit somewhat lacking in the earlier pieces, the Neapolitan Song full of verve and high spirits.

I listened to this hybrid stereo/multichannel disc in the two-channel mode on a Sony SACD player, and found the sonics quite good. Sometimes on other SACD's, it sounds as if the audio engineers had folded the rear-channel sound into the front channels, resulting in a degree of lower-midrange thickness, but not here. Recorded at DZZ Studio 5 Moscow, in June 2010, the sound is fairly clear, with a pleasant ambient bloom around the ensemble. Dynamics could be a tad stronger, impact greater, and bass deeper, even if these qualities do come to the fore on occasion. Although there are a couple of hefty bass whacks to liven things up, it isn't really enough for this type of music. The PentaTone sound is simply genial, listenable, rather than audiophile material.


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